MPs renew calls for blanket ban of TikTok on government devices

Critics including former party leader and incumbent committee chair 

Credit: Antonbe/Pixabay

Senior parliamentarians have renewed calls for the installation or use of TikTok on government devices to be entirely prohibited.

Those campaigning for the imposition of such a strict policy include Conservative party leader Iain Duncan Smith – a longtime and vocal critic of the use of technology from Huawei and other China-based firms – and Alicia Kearns, the incumbent chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

The European Commission and Council of the EU has recently banned their staff from using TikTok on work phones. This followed the same decision by the US federal government in December, which cited concerns about the possibility of the Chinese government using TikTok to access US user data and undermine US interests.

A UK Parliament TikTok account launched last year was swiftly shut down after concerns about the possibility of data being passed to the Chinese state were raised by MPs including Duncan Smith, as well as Tom Tugendhat and Nus Ghani and Iain Duncan Smith.

There are, however, no plans to prohibit individual MPs from using TikTok – a platform whose users already include cabinet minister Grant Shapps, as well as the likes of backbench MP Ben Bradley, who has 15,000 followers.

Speaking exclusively to PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, Kearns described TikTok as “the dream app for any hostile state”, and called for a “national conversation” about the potential risks the technology poses.

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“We need to recognise the fact that, while democratisation of information is a really good thing, there are also vulnerabilities that come with technologies as well,” she said. 

Duncan Smith, meanwhile, described the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office as “hopeless” on national security and wants the government to involve the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in delivering workshops and writing advice to parliamentarians to encourage them off the app. 

“The government can’t seem to make a point of giving any guidance at all,” he said.

The National Cyber Security Centre – which is part of GCHQ – has published advice for members of parliament and their staff which notes that as “high-profile individuals” MPs and their staff are at risk of cyberattack. It guides MPs to review the security settings on social media apps and “make sure you are happy with them”.

TikTok is owned by parent company Bytedance, which is headquartered in China. At the heart of the unease surrounding data security is a law in China which compels companies registered or with operations in China to give information to Chinese intelligence agencies if asked to.

TikTok itself is registered in the Cayman Islands, so there are questions over whether TikTok would technically be under the jurisdiction of this law. TikTok categorically denies that it has ever – or would ever – hand over data to the Chinese government.

“Our data is held in the US and Singapore, we are opening and expanding new data centres in Europe this year and we comply with robust data laws in these jurisdictions, such as GDPR,” a TikTok spokesperson said. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said government has “robust processes in place to ensure government IT devices are secure” but would not comment on specific cybersecurity policies. 

Describing China as posing a “system challenge” to the values and interests of the UK, an FCDO spokesperson said that the department has introduced some of the “strongest data protection laws in the world to ensure personal data is handled responsibly and securely”.

According to the department, TikTok must comply with these laws and face enforcement action if they fail to do so.

PoliticsHome’s feature on the use of TikTok in parliament can be read here

Additional material from PublicTechnology staff

Zoe Crowther

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